Home > Uncategorized > Optimism – Hope isn’t rational, so why are humans wired for it?

Optimism – Hope isn’t rational, so why are humans wired for it?

The optimism bias.

According to Tali Sharot, in this weeks Time magazine, our brains are incurable optimists.

We are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted etc.

The belief that the future will be much better than the present is known as the optimism bias:

 “Optimism starts with the extraordinary human talent: Mental time travel. Our ability to move back and forth in space and time in ones mind. Our capacity to envision different times and places. Obviously a wonderful thing to be able to do – but it comes at an enormous price – the understanding that out there in the future death awaits. It can be argued that awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end…. The despair would have interferred with daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop.

The only way conscious mental time travle could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to envision a bright future.”

According to Sharots studies, brain regions like the rACC (rostral anterior cingulate cortex, part of the frontal cortex) boosts the flow of positive emotions and is more active in optimists, when they imagine a positive future. The Amygdala is apparently also involved in letting us generate optimism.

Interestingly, the rACC and the amygdala show abnormal activity in depressed people. Healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it turns out to be. People with severe depressions expect the future to be worse than it end up being. Whereas people with mild depressions are relatively accurate when predicting future events.

“In other words, in the absence of neural mechanisms that generate unrealistic optimism, it is possible that all humans would be mildly depressed.

Why was optimism selected by evolution? On balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival.”

Yet, sure, optimism is also sometimes irrational, and create illusions – where knowledge of these (brain)  illusions might eventually give us both optimism and realism.

The future looks bright.





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